Friday, 4 March 2011

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The worst thing about being a language teacher is... when you try to be a student again?

UBC classroom

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how important I believe it is for language teachers to periodically have their own language classes. That way we can experience what it feels like to be a student (you can read the benefits as I see it here). With that in mind, I had my first Brazilian Portuguese class yesterday. This was my first language class as an English teacher, and I found that it was as an illuminating experience as I had hoped it would be. I also realised, however, that this may not entirely be a good thing.

Instinctively I found myself analysing the teacher and his teaching techniques. In my head I was making a list of plus points and negatives, which I’ve summarised here -

Things I liked:

- Lovely class room manner
- Good at building student teacher rapport
- Obviously passionate about his subject
- Flexible and willing to deal with student queries.
- Vocabulary often presented in chunks
- Mostly speaks target language
- Not scared of tangents
- Well planned

Things to work on:

- Too much vocabulary
- Writes everything on the board
- Far too much teacher talk time
- Little interaction between students
- My advice: if you can’t draw, don’t draw.
- Tangents became too far removed from original vocabulary.
- I was late, and he stopped the class to talk to me. He should have just acknowledged me and spoken to me later.
- Grammar based, rather than theme based.
- Far too much homework (I’m not being lazy, honest!)
- Didn’t attempt to engage us with the subject.
- Lots of input, but no output activity in sight.

Overall I enjoyed the experience, and I’ll be going back. It was a very good experience as a teacher, I’ll learn a lot from being there because it offers the opportunities for me to reflect that I enjoy. However, it’s not going to help me improve my Portuguese, which is the main reason to be there of course. I don’t want to spend valuable time analysing the class when I should be getting on with learning the language.

At least as a teacher I know how to deal with the issues I confront and make the most of the opportunities the classes give me. That’s one advantage I suppose.


  1. It's great that you are doing this. I've discovered that you can get the same effect of reminding yourself of what it feels like to be a student again when taking ANY kind of course, not just language.
    Have to admit that I also started that path with a similair course, but in Spanish!

  2. Hi Naomi. Thanks for the encouragement. I suppose you're right, it could be any course we could take, I guess a language course just sprang to mind for obvious reasons. Good luck with your Spanish.

  3. This is a great post, James. I started learning Mandarin Chinese four years ago, and gave up last year because I got frustrated with all the things which were going wrong in class. I should have kept a blog.


    Simon Greenall

  4. Thanks Simon. I'm trying to be positive and mine the class for useful things, but at times it's frustrating. Just going to hang on in there...

  5. Hi James :) I stumbled on your blog via someone's Tweet today, read a little, then found this post.

    I'm fascinated by your experience! I teach English in Brazil, but am self-taught in the language. I do know a number of Brazilian English teachers, though, and what you described is the way they teach English too.

    Brazilians have an all-consuming obsession with grammar. The language is grammar taught or learnt (depending from which angle you're looking). They beg for grammar in English classes too.

    English is taught as a second language in the schools here. How? In Portuguese and it's entirely grammar-based, so the students come out of it with great grammar, but almost zero actual English.

    Great post! I took a lot away from it too. Thanks!

  6. Hi Corrianne,

    Thanks for stopping by, Your description of the Brazilian obsession with grammar is all too familiar to me. However, my impression is that this is generally true for children in the education system rather than the adult private sector, which is more up to date with its methods.

    The real cause of the obsession, I think, is that this is how they learn their own language. Unlike the curriculum that I experienced when I was young which was based around literature, they tend to have classes based around the structure and rules of the language. I think this is one of the contributing factors to the wildly varying levels of literacy in the country and is also the reason that teachers like mine don't have access to and awareness of more contemporary language learning techniques.

    However, I don't think Brazil is unique in this. In fact, I think it is true in most of the non-English speaking world. Having classes like mine serves as a very useful reality check, and a reminder of how things are for the vast majority of teachers and learners.

  7. Hi James,

    Really enjoyed this post! I'm also taking language lessons at the moment - French in a group and Spanish one-to-one. Aside from just generally loving studying languages in the first place, it's great being in the student's shoes for a change. If nothing else, these lessons remind me constantly of the value of learner training - helping teach our learners how to learn, not just how to use English! So they can get the most out of the lessons, whoever the teacher and whatever his/her techniques.

    Like you, I also find it hard to switch off my 'teacher' mode when I'm the student. But I do sympathise (if that's the right word) with foreign language teachers like ours, who've got TEFL teachers in their class, as I think there tends to be a lot less input, training and literature available for teachers of languages other than English.




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